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MIT's Stata Center's indoor walkway rambles through the ground floor
Inside MIT's Stata Center, an indoor walkway called the Student Street rambles a bending, twisting course through the building's ground floor. (Mark Wilson/Globe Staff)
ARCHITECTURE

The state of Stata

Now three years old, the inventive MIT building is meeting many of the goals that were set for it

CAMBRIDGE -- When the Stata Center at MIT, by famed architect Frank Gehry, opened three years ago, it garnered a lot of press. Not all of that was praise, to say the least.

There were bugs. There were, for instance, at least 50 simultaneous leaks in Gehry's dramatically shaped roofs.

But bugs bother a lot of new buildings, especially if they're as inventive as this one. New buildings, like new computer programs, require a period of debugging. And people need time to adjust to a radically new kind of workplace.

It's three years now since Stata opened. It's time to look beyond the building's jazzy, cartoonish aesthetic and ask whether it's working. Is it serving the goals it was designed for?

After a month of wandering Stata and talking to inhabitants, I'm ready to say, yes, on the whole, Stata does work, and to a surprising degree.

Like any building, the Stata has to be seen as much more than merely a work of architectural art. It's a set of interior spaces, spaces where people go every day to study, play, socialize, run experiments, and do many other things.

MIT was very clear about its goals for those spaces. The building was supposed to be a mixing chamber. It would get MIT scientists, both teachers and students, to meet with one another. Too often, it was felt, they were holed up in isolated labs, apartments, and classrooms. Architect Gehry puts it this way:

"The main problem that I was given was that there are seven separate departments that never talk to each other. And when they talk to each other, if they get together, they synergize and make things happen and it's gangbusters . . . So they asked me to make places where people could bump into one another."

Stata, it was hoped, would nourish professional connections. People would cross the boundaries of scientific disciplines. Great minds would meet and spawn great ideas. Social life would improve.

Stata does these things best at a place that is loved by everyone. This is the so-called Student Street.

The Street is an indoor walkway that rambles a bending, twisting course through the Stata's ground floor. Sometimes its space is narrow, sometimes wide, sometimes high, sometimes low. Sunlight falls from above. Walls tilt and bend, often in bright colors, and angle off in ways that tempt you to follow them. Muscular concrete columns jab the air.

All kinds of people are here, too. Students and faculty hurry by, or perhaps stop for a sandwich or a cappuccino. A group pulls together a few chairs and tables and huddles to brainstorm a problem. Professors climb up from the parking garage below and stride to their elevators. At 5 o'clock, kids swarm out of the daycare center. Undergrads in gym shorts head for the fitness club. Others spill from the lecture halls and classrooms. Everything seems to happen on the Student Street.

Visitors come too, stopping to stare at the porcelain cow that is enthroned atop the coffee shop, which MIT hackers, um, liberated from the Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus. The Student Street is for everyone. It's a digital-age reinvention of MIT's famous Infinite Corridor, far more brilliant than the original.

"Any kind of scientific work is always under construction, always still being built," remarks a professor of linguistics. He could be talking about the ever-changing Street or about the Stata itself.

Many years ago, it occurred to Gehry that his buildings looked more interesting while they were under construction than when they were finished. Ever since, he's looked for ways to give a finished building a sense of being something still in the process of happening. Nothing about the Stata feels quite finished. The architecture is a metaphor for the science it contains.

That science, it should be noted, barely existed a generation ago. Stata is home to the so-called intelligence or information sciences. Most of the researchers in the Stata are figuring out how thinking takes place and how it can be improved and communicated, whether in a human brain, a computer, a network, or a robot. (There's also a minority squad of linguists and philosophers.)

You can argue that the building itself is another metaphor, a metaphor for the Internet. Messages on the Net take crazy routes, following the path of least resistance. If you look at a Stata floor plan, it too appears to be total chaos. Except for the Student Street on the ground floor, there is never a main corridor, or any other organizing motif. No two places in the Stata are exactly the same.

So you just wander, like that electronic blip on the Internet, till you get where you're going (usually by asking someone -- another kind of social connector). You may run into people and projects you didn't know existed. Those who work here say -- almost unanimously -- that the Stata does indeed introduce them to one another, more than was true in the past.

They also mention food. The faculty dining room is heavily used. And there's a "tea kitchen" on every floor. Food is everywhere, serving its usual socializing function.

A less obvious move, but very important, is the fact that the Stata contains an amazing amount of unprogrammed space, space that isn't assigned to any particular use. An efficiency expert would call it total waste. People just grab it when they need it and make of it what they want. Students will fill an unprogrammed space with a newly invented game, or an impromptu discussion, or a party. "The undergraduates really mill in the building," says one professor. Because this kind of space isn't under anyone's direct control, the Stata feels liberating. You feel it's your turf to play on, not some administrator's.

Stata communicates that same kind of loose informality when you look at it from outside. When it first arrived, I described it this way:

"It looks as if it's about to collapse. Columns tilt at scary angles. Walls teeter, swerve, and collide in random curves and angles. Materials change wherever you look: yellow brick, mirror-surface steel, brushed aluminum, brightly colored paint, corrugated metal. Everything looks improvised, as if thrown up at the last moment."

Even a Doonesbury comic strip commented on the Stata's bizarre appearance. That inventive, improvised look, though, is a promise of what awaits you inside.

A few minor points:

  • Like a good car or a good suit, a good building costs more to buy, and often to maintain, than a bad one. Says the Stata's chief of maintenance: "This is a Maserati, not a Cadillac, and it needs a Maserati mechanic."

  • A lively building can be a recruiting tool. I'm told that when potential young faculty members see the Stata, they conclude that MIT must be alive and playful. "It's an icon for this age," says one professor. "It says we take risks."

  • The Stata doesn't look like one thing, it looks like an aggregate of unrelated parts, materials, textures and surfaces that somehow got crammed together. There's nothing commanding about it. Though it's huge, it's never overwhelming. Gehry goes so far as to claim the collage of many elements is the right architecture for a democracy.

    As noted, there are problems, too:

  • Not everyone loves the indoor materials, which are raw metal, glass, plywood, industrial lamps, and raw concrete. Gehry wanted his building to feel as unpretentious as a warehouse, so people wouldn't feel intimidated by it. They'd bang around in it and change it whenever they wanted.

  • Those multiple leaks have been fixed, but most of the fixes are sealed with caulk that will have to be regularly replaced.

  • Indoor heat and cold can be unpredictable, partly because so many computers are generating heat. Seminar rooms were too dimly lit and are being relamped. The sloped walls of one such room make people dizzy. And storage space everywhere is at a minimum.

  • A prominent outdoor brick amphitheater is little used and, worse, is said to be falling apart. No one will talk for the record, but apparently mortar joints have failed and major reconstruction will be needed.

  • Undergraduates mostly work in shared open space and some feel they lack privacy. Often they can be overheard -- and overlooked -- from a balcony above. In a few cases, clear glass walls have been frosted over for visual privacy, and it's likely that acoustical absorption will be added in places.

    The Stata's worst flaw, though, is the division of the upper floors into two towers, the Gates tower and the Dreyfoos tower, each named for a donor. If the goal of your building is to get people to meet and mix, you don't help it by separating them into two towers. Egotistic, donor-driven architecture -- "See where I made my gift" -- is a cliche at many campuses, but it shouldn't have happened here.

    So the Stata isn't faultless. Think of it this way: When you design a car, you first develop a prototype. You work out the bugs in the prototype before you go into manufacture. But you don't get to do a prototype for a new kind of building.

    Stata remains an amazing and, on the whole, excitingly successful place. For me, every visit was a spatial, visual, and social pleasure. Whatever you think of this building's a esthetics, it's doing its job.

    Some of my Gehry comments are taken from a book I recommend to anyone interested in the Stata. It's "Imagining MIT: Designing a Campus for the Twenty-First Century," by William J. Mitchell (MIT Press).

    Robert Campbell is the Globe's architecture critic. He can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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